Quinoa Ingrains Itself in Passover Meals

It’s been about a decade since quinoa first broke into the Passover market, and while the Andean nongrain grain still meets with some culinary and rabbinic skepticism, it is making inroads on both fronts, securing its spot both at the Passover table and in fine restaurants.

Quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) is a South American staple — part of the Incan diet for millennia — that was first imported into the United States in the early 1980s. It’s a small, pearly grain with a fibrous tail, versatile taste and satisfying texture.

“Nutritionally, it’s a powerhouse,” said Rachel Beller, a registered dietitian and founder of the Beller Nutritional Institute. She rattles off a nutritional profile that includes manganese, iron, folate, calcium and a variety of vitamins. Quinoa’s biggest selling point is its high protein content — it is the only vegetable that is a complete protein, packing the right balance of amino acids.

It is also gluten-free and easy on the stomach, Beller notes, though it has only a moderate level of fiber — a half-cup serving has about two grams of fiber, 120 calories and four grams of protein.

The Bible lists five forbidden chametz grains — barley, rye, oats, wheat and spelt — which all rise when they touch water. Fifteenth-century Ashkenazi (European) rabbis appended kitniyot — legumes and other grains that were used to make flour or processed alongside and often mixed with chametz grains. The list includes beans, rice, corn and some seed-based spices, such as mustard.

Sephardic leaders of North Africa and Muslim countries generally allowed kitniyot, with customs varying from country to country.
Kitniyot remains a somewhat fluid category, with new issues arising from year to year — cumin seems to go on and off the list, for instance, and decades ago peanuts were deemed permitted by the preeminent rabbinic decider Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, but today peanuts are considered kitniyot by most Ashkenazi rabbis.

Where quinoa will land is not yet clear.

Quinoa is a member of the goosefoot (chenopodium) family, home to beets and spinach. Rabbis first opined on quinoa in 1997, when the Star-K certification determined that it was not a biblical chametz grain, and it doesn’t rise when it comes in contact with water — in fact, it decays. It grows in arid, high altitudes, where chametz grains can’t grow.

Organizations such as the highly respected Chicago Rabbinical Council, the O-K, the Star-K and Kosher Overseers Associates of America (the “half-moon K”) have allowed the use of quinoa processed by companies that don’t process any other grains, such as Ancient Harvest. O-K certifies Eden Foods for Passover, and Osem in Israel imports Sugat quinoa.

But the Orthodox Union (OU), the largest kashrut supervision agency in the country, isn’t taking any chances.

“Facilities that process and package quinoa often package grain or wheat, as well, and the concern is that there also might be mixtures of wheat that could get into the quinoa, or that the equipment is not cleaned between one grain and another,” said Rabbi Nachum Rabinowitz, senior rabbinic coordinator of the OU.

The OU won’t certify kitniyot but doesn’t go so far as forbidding it. Its Passover catalog advises kosher consumers to consult their own rabbis and to check any quinoa for other grains mixed in.

That sort of hemming and hawing about quinoa could lead to its demise, worries Adeena Sussman, a food writer and recipe developer based in New York City.

“I have a lurking fear that people will get overzealous and not be able to just enjoy this Passover revelation,” she said.

She says the nutty, earthy flavor of quinoa and its health profile has endeared it to many top chefs. She has seen it at fine restaurants mostly in timbale form, a side dish of molded grain. She enjoys it as a base for a pilaf or salad, with herbs, lemon zest, an acid and flavorful oil. She’s made a rich breakfast pudding out of it, used it for stuffed cabbage, as a stand-in for pasta in soups and has crafted a quinoa-potato fritter.

Still, quinoa hasn’t quite shed its stigma of being a hippie food, and some people just don’t like it, she said.

“A lot of people get a bad impression of quinoa if it’s not prepared properly,” she said.

The two biggest mistakes people make are overcooking it, so it gets soggy and tasteless, or not rinsing the grains three times to get rid of a natural soapy residue that can be bitter.

Beller advises keeping an eye on the serving size — a quarter-cup is about equivalent in calories to one slice of bread.

She is glad to see a wholesome, unprocessed food taking center stage during a holiday when people otherwise seem to forget healthy eating behaviors.

“We lose our judgment of what we’re actually buying on Passover,” said Beller. “A lot of families buy a lot more junk, because they think, ‘What is my kid going to eat?’ … But they don’t realize there are so many different options out there,” she said.

“Leading up to Passover, we clean our kitchens and our homes, we get rid of so many things,” she said. “Carry that message over into your diet. If you carry that mentality, you’ll do much better. But I find that most people do the opposite.”